Gloucester Comes Under The Microscope

Posted on March 18, 2013 by

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Gloucester didn’t quite cut the mustard (more anon) but Ibis did. A pleasant double with mod cons £36 a night. Lenny Premier Inn Henry take note. Ibis has lifts so no lugging heavy camera equipment up the stairs.

Say Gloucester, think Cathedral, Doctor Foster, Dick Whittington, Beatrix Potter, Henry III, Edward II and (reluctantly) Harry Potter. The cathedral cloisters were used for Hogwart’s in the films of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Edward Jenner, who deserved his fine statue in the Cathedral, also hailed from here. He was the genius who put forward the alarming notion that to prevent catching smallpox, we should be vaccinated with small pox.

We don’t know why Doctor Foster went to Gloucester but we do know he stepped in a puddle and never went there again. The nursery rhyme first appeared in print in 1844 but tots were chanting the ditty long before that. The old Gloucestershire word for puddle was piddle. When piddle transmuted into the modern meaning, it was adjusted to suit sensitive taste.

As for Miss Potter, she had many connections with Gloucester. One of her beguiling stories for children is The Tailor of Gloucester. Self-published in 1902, it’s about a tailor whose work on a waistcoat is finished by the grateful mice he rescued from his cat. 9 College Court, which Beatrix Potter chose for the tiny shop where the tailor worked, is dedicated to him and to his creator. Her stories may be considered twee by some. Miss Potter was anything but. A no nonsense farmer and hard headed businesswoman, she was not the least sentimental about animals. As a child she taught herself to draw by boiling carcasses of small animals to draw their skeletons.

The famous Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London three times, also came from around here. Far from the poor lad depicted in Christmas pantomimes, his father was Sir William Whittington, a rich man. As for his cat, whatever the truth behind that legend, a mere forty years after Dick’s death, when his great-nephew Richard Whittington built a mansion in nearby Pauntley, he incorporated a sculpting of a boy with a cat. There are depictions of cats dotted around the city. Our favourite was the mock moggy in a mock window in the garden of the Folk Museum.

We popped in the museum for a quick look around and emerged three hours later. It’s everything the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden is not. It oodles charm, atmosphere and character and all for a token entrance fee, not a hefty I-saw-you-coming £15. The eatery is a gem. Two fat Gloucestershire Old Spot sausages on a mound of buttery swede and potato mash. Divine. Get some of these to take home we said. As if. We looked everywhere. The nearest we got to Gloucester Old Spot was to a model (art work). Where are the shops selling Gloucester Old Spot sausages and Double Gloucester cheese? Come to that, where are the shops? Where are the entrepreneurs? We’re in the middle of a recession. Surely the Council would pay the rent on one of the many empty shops to sell local produce? But hang on. It’s the Council’s fault the shops are empty. Like towns and cities all over the UK Planning Departments gave permission for yet another out of town boring shopping centre with the same boring outlets selling kitsch. This was peak buying time, Saturday afternoon, yet all were empty. No wonder. Soul-less. Depressing. Not tempted to go in let alone buy anything.

The jewel in Gloucester’s crown, is, of course, its magnificent cathedral. Now here’s a funny thing. In Durham Cathedral, spies lurk behind every pillar ready to pounce on anyone who looks as if they might sneak a photo on the phone. In Gloucester, for a reasonable £3 photography permit visitors may snap away (with flash) to their heart’s content yet Durham is no more beautiful than Gloucester.

We are lucky to have this beautiful building. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, that greedy thug Henry VIII allowed it to survive only because a king is buried in the Cathedral and another was crowned here. A magnificent window depicts the coronation of the nine year old Henry III in 1216, the only English monarch crowned outside London. With Bad King John as a father what a childhood Henry had and what a terrible start to his reign. As John lost the royal regalia in the Wash, Henry was crowned with his mother’s bracelet.

However, Henry is not the draw. People have been making the pilgrimage to Gloucester ever since 1327, when word got out that Edward II was murdered in nearby Berkeley Castle.

I tell Edward’s story in Royal Hertfordshire: Murders & Misdemeanours. When his wife invaded England with an army, Edward was forced to abdicate in favour of their fourteen year old son Edward. The boy, fond of his father, agreed only when Edward sent him the sceptre and crown.

It was intended that Edward II should die of ‘natural’ causes but (like the Russian monk Rasputin) he was too robust. His jailers shaved his head and beard so he was unrecognisable and brought him to Berkeley Castle on horseback along byways by night. To weaken his constitution he was not allowed to sleep. He wore only a thin nightshirt and was expected to die of hypothermia. Given rancid food and dirty water to drink he was expected to die of food poisoning. Every word he uttered was repeated back to him in mockery so he was expected to lose his reason. His humiliation was complete when he was given a crown made from of hay.

Jailers were instructed to leave no marks on his body. According to Sir Thomas More: ‘On the night of October 11 (1327) while lying in bed [the king] was suddenly seized and, while great mattress… weighed him down and suffocated him, a plumber’s iron, heated intensely hot, was introduced through a tube into his secret parts so that it burned the inner portions beyond the intestines’.

Edward was the architect of his own downfall. Not only did he have no interest in kingship, he lived openly and defiantly as a homosexual with his lover Piers Gaveston. When Gaveston was murdered Edward took another male lover.

His corpse was brought to Gloucester Cathedral in a lead coffin. No one actually saw his face. Ian Mortimer’s The Greatest Traitor contains a letter to Edward III from a notary of the pope telling him that his father did not die in Berkeley Castle but with the help of his jailers managed to escape. If there was such a letter, if Edward did indeed receive it, he might well have believed it because in 1334 he wrote to one of the alleged murderers, Sir John Maltravers, and gave him a job with a high salary.

Edward ordered a shrine be built over his father’s tomb. His royal patronage led to funds flowing into the abbey which paid for the magnificent remodelling of the east end to be carried out in the very latest Perpendicular style. The fan vaulting in the cloisters was invented here for the cathedral.

The impressive, elaborate, painted wooden effigy is of Robert, duke of Normandy, first son of William the Conqueror. His mother Matilda (to whom he was close) is depicted in a window visiting the Cathedral. The effigy was paid for by Crusaders because in 1096, Robert was on the First Crusade. He was so poor that he often had to stay in bed for lack of clothes. To raise money for the Crusade he mortgaged his duchy to his brother William. He was supposed to be King of England when his brother William 11 died in a hunting accident. Instead his brother Henry incarcerated him in Cardiff Castle where he died many years later in his eighties. He was buried here in what was then the abbey church of St. Peter.

On our way back to the car park we popped into Chez Rose a delightful shop run by its delightful owner, beavering away after hours. Good to know someone in the UK embraces the work ethic. We have looked everywhere, we told her, for Old Spot sausages. She said there is one chap in town who sometimes sells them but he shuts shop at 4pm. 4pm. On a Saturday afternoon. Beggars belief.

We left Gloucester in awe of its Cathedral while despairing of its empty shops. Like the rest of Britain, it must once have been amazing.

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